The Last of Us Part II: Exploring Moral Relativism and the Cycle of Violence

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II

In 2013 The Last of Us was both a critical darling and a huge hit with the general gaming scene. It managed to blend cinematic presentation and gameplay in a way that was extremely compelling and emotionally resonate. The Last of Us had some technical issues, but at the end of the day it was a step up in storytelling for modern gaming. One of the most intriguing aspects of the game was the morally ambiguous ending and the brutal aesthetic of the universe. 

The story of Ellie and Joel was continued this year with the release of The Last of Us Part II. This release unfortunately was marred by a leak of major plot spoilers and the director Neil Druckmann going to battle with critics as well as nasty hateful discourse and abuse lobbed at the voice actors and others involved with the game. If one is able to push all this noise aside and immerse themselves into the actual game, however, they will find that it tells a harrowing and ultimately thought-provoking story about the futility of vengeance and violence.

Ellie and Joel have started a new life in a town called Jackson, where survivors have banded together to try to live a semblance of a peaceful life. The fallout for the ending of the first game, in which Joel murdered a doctor to save Ellie's life (also stopping a potential vaccine for the plant infection) is felt heavily in the narrative and it has also strained Ellie and Joel's relationship. The doctor who Joel murdered had a daughter, a headstrong young women named Abby. After his death she becomes obsessed with finding Joel and exacting revenge. Revenge is the main theme of The Last of Us Part II, and throughout the game it is examined through a dual narrative. 

Photo courtesy of Naughty Dog

One of the most controversial choices made with this story is having the player switch main characters halfway through the game. Joel is graphically murdered by Abby and Ellie witnesses the entire thing. She is overcome by grief and anger and goes on a personal mission to kill Abby and everyone she cares about. Joel is a beloved character (but not without flaws himself) and at first the player feels good about going to get Abby. However, right at a climatic moment, after Ellie has carved a bloody swath through numerous enemies and characters the game switches the perspective to Abby and we are forced to replay the story from her view. I found this be incredibly bold, because up to this point I hated her character and what she did. Good and bad are defined by the point-of-view not necessarily by actions alone. The medium of video games are unique in that because the consumer is actively participating instead of passively watching it can make a deeper emotional connection to what is happening on the screen.

This decision kills some of the pacing in the middle of the game and I will admit to being initially frustrated, but once Abby's story got going I was sucked into her plight. Slowly, I started feeling empathy for her and at times rooting for her. This feeling only grew until once the narrative makes it back to the climatic confrontation between her and Ellie I was distraught because I didn't want to see anything bad happen to either of them. They are two sides of the same coin, women consumed by vengeance at the cost of everything around them and their chance to live a happy and peaceful life. Again and again they keep enabling the cycle of violence and each time they kill it starts anew. It takes someone finally breaking that chain and that is what this game is really about. It is a conscious decision to continue to hate and hurt others even if you have been hurt yourself.

There is a character (initially incidental to the player, just another “enemy” in your path, but retroactively fleshed out a bit later) that Ellie kills and she’s playing a Vita. If you look closer at the Vita afterwards it’s obvious from the music coming out of it that she was playing Hotline Miami, an ultra-violent indie game where you brutally murder people as an assassin. The interesting thing about Hotline Miami is that it’s 2D and highly stylized so the violence doesn’t feel as intimate, but the way Ellie kills this character, by stabbing her in the neck, is super realistic and disturbing. Every stealth kill you do is like that, but it feels like meta commentary about the contrast between cartoony violence and realistic violence in gaming. The kills in this game make you feel bad, people scream in agony, they gurgle blood after you stab them, they beg for their lives—I played with headphones on the entire time and at times it was overwhelming with that level of immersion. 

Photo courtesy of Naughty Dog

While the idea of exploring violence and the how complicit the player is with executing the violence isn't a new concept in gaming, this latest game is certainly thoughtful about how it is depicted. Video games are quickly approaching photo-realism and this makes ludonarrative dissonance a bigger deal than it has been in the past. Future next gen game developers are going to have to find ways to work around this when they are crafting dramatic single player stories that are supposed to be grounded in realism and balancing this with the gameplay.

In all the controversy about the story one of the most remarkable aspects of The Last of Us Part II is being overlooked: the accessibility features. This game has the most extensive set of options I have ever seen in a console video game and you can tweak nearly every part of the game to your liking. It has options for colorblind people, blind and deaf gamers, people with mobility issues (if you can only use one hand, for example, there are options for that). One of the most simple yet needed options is the ability to adjust the size and color of the subtitle font. There have been a few games I had a hard time reading the menus because it’s too small (I wear glasses and contacts). It’s mind blowing it took this long to include this type of stuff and this should be a template for all AAA games in the next gen. 

The gameplay is a refined version of the style in the first game, with a rather clunky jump mechanic added. I would have liked to see it changed up a bit more but the improved enemy and ally AI makes for a better experience overall. The presentation is gorgeous, the graphics and lighting are outstanding and I saw very few instances of pop-in or frame dropping. As an aside, if your TV supports HDR it makes an already beautiful game jaw-dropping. Composer Gustavo Santaolalla returns and his work is just as haunting as ever with the addition of some truly scary and ominous pieces.

Like any great work of art, The Last of Us Part II is divisive and it is hard at times to separate the toxic discourse from legitimate criticism. It is not a perfect game but it is a heartfelt and passionate work from a lot of talented people and worth experiencing for yourself to make your own opinion about.

--Michelle Kisner